29 July, 2011

Rebranding jihads or banks

Melbourne Herald Sun, Friday July 29, 2011

Whether you’re marketing jihads or mortgages, so much depends on getting the name right.

Take Osama bin Laden. Towards the end he was struggling to come to terms with modern marketing. Like many a corporate CEO he had to weigh up the value of his brand, suffering as it was from the loss of key management people, decline in market-share, and too long between headline-grabbing atrocities.

As has been discovered from the computer-loads of documents and emails brought out of his Abbottabad lair, he was seriously thinking about re-branding and re-naming his franchise.

He was concerned that they were getting bad PR from killing too many Muslims rather than infidels, and the name al-Qaeda was losing its political and religious significance to the punters.

Even more concerning, his market was being attracted away by the exciting new people power revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Lybia. He had become old-hat and came to the conclusion that they needed a makeover.

My Arabic being non-existent I could give little assistance to the re-naming think tank. But I can certainly point to the importance of getting the name right.

Here in Australia we’ve just seen a classic example of how the wrong turn can lead you up a dead end.

In 1997 Westpac bought Bank of Melbourne at the time when all the little banks were being swallowed up. Seven years later, in a fit of corporate uniformity, then chief David Morgan dumped the Melbourne name and painted the whole show red.

Too many customers responded by going elsewhere, and Westpac never achieved that “Melbourneness” that it desired.

So now the rebranding is on again under another the new boss, Scott Tanner. This time all the St George branches in Victoria will become Bank of Melbourne. The process has already started, as you’ll notice next time you saunter down the high street.

The plan has been costed at $578 million. It’s a lot of money to take you back to where you started from.

But they have made lots of promises which Melburnians will watch with a skeptical eye. Within the next five years they will add 100 new branches, and 300 ATMs, they say.

There is also talk of their opening on Saturdays again, as the old BoM did in the past. Already they have set daily times at 9:30-5.00, five days a week.

Changing the brand and the corporate colours is never cheap and not always effective. In 1995 another new boss, Frank Blount, stamped his branding on his company, renaming Telecom Australia to Telstra.

Once again it was a mightily expensive exercise, millions of dollars. Just imagine replacing all the phone boxes for a start!

However he found himself in a hide-bound structure going back to the PMG’s Department and he needed the huge workforce to look at itself differently, and be willing to change. Maybe a change of name would make the old rose smell sweeter.

The Telecom empire was run by divisional war-lords who only towed the line if it pointed the way they wanted to go. The new image helped Blount to fight his new-broom skirmishes.

Much has changed in the past 16 years, not all to the good. But there is no denying that the modern Telstra has no resemblance to the old model of the past. There are benefits, there are losses, but looking back they seem to have been inevitable.

Such is the gamble you take with these huge organisations. Reality is, much of what goes on within the walls is outside senior management’s knowledge or control. So they fall back on a lick of paint and extended opening hours to show the public that something has really changed.

Let’s hope that Westpac’s changes work out - and that al-Qaeda’s don’t.


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